Affective Evaluations of First Ladies: A Comparison of Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush

By Sulfaro, Valerie A. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Affective Evaluations of First Ladies: A Comparison of Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush


Sulfaro, Valerie A., Presidential Studies Quarterly


This study examines affective evaluations toward Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush during their tenure as first ladies and during Hillary Clinton's subsequent time as a U.S. senator. It was hypothesized that first ladies, rather than being above partisan politics, are evaluated in the same partisan and ideological manner as most political candidates. It was also hypothesized that Laura Bush, as a more traditional first lady, may receive more support from those who are associated with more traditional lifestyles and values. Ultimately, the strongest sources of affect toward first ladies prove to be partisanship and ideology. Moreover, when comparing ideal first ladies, liberals and women prefer Hillary Clinton, and white males and conservatives tend to prefer Nancy Reagan to Laura Bush.

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The relationship between first ladies and public opinion is understudied by scholars of the presidency. Research often focuses on a first lady's relationship with her spouse or on historical anecdotes about the activities of first ladies, sometimes with an attempt to draw inferences about the public's evaluation of the role of first ladies despite the lack of systematic, empirical analyses of public opinion. As a consequence, scholars often seem out of touch with public attitudes. For example, Troy (1997, 2000) often has suggested that the public has "rejected" the modern incarnation of the first lady role because, in his view, most Americans "want equality, but find traditional sex roles soothing" (2000, 3). He argues that the use of first ladies as a source of political capital by their spouses is dangerous and misguided because "modern first ladies--and especially the powerful ones--have been electorally problematic. They often do more harm than good" (2000, 4). Troy implies that criticism of first ladies is grounded in both their visibility and their failure to conform to traditional gender roles, rather than being primarily partisan in nature.

Troy is not alone in this assumption. Watson's (2000) presidential scholars poll finds that, while the vast majority of scholars do not perceive political policy advocacy as an inappropriate activity for first ladies, most nonetheless rate the role of being a loyal and supportive wife as far more important than being a presidential advisor, a role model for women, or an advocate for social causes. More than 64 percent believe that the public views activist first ladies unfavorably (Watson 2000, 165). However, most scholars in Watson's poll do not agree with Troy's assertion that first ladies cost candidates votes, in that few (less than 6 percent) believe first ladies have any independent influence on vote choice.

The data on public opinion and first ladies are less than conclusive. In her study of attitudes about Hillary Clinton, Burrell (1997) finds that secondary public opinion data vary, in some cases dramatically, as a function of slight differences in question wording between polling firms (see Watson 2000 for large shifts in approval of first ladies across time periods). These variations affected both approval ratings of Hillary Clinton and views about the appropriateness of her conduct as first lady. Moreover, the use of secondary opinion data is limiting because, in addition to these methodological problems, it does not permit the researcher to fully examine who liked or disliked any particular first lady. (1) Given such limitations, we cannot adequately determine whether Hillary Clinton elicits more polarized reactions than her successor (or many of her predecessors) because Americans holding traditional beliefs about gender roles found her activism threatening or because she simply was a more visible and legitimate target for members of the opposing political party (but see Watson 2000). Clearly, a more systematic examination of the sources of affect toward first ladies using primary data is in order.

Potential Sources of Attitudes toward First Ladies

Many factors can shape how an individual views a first lady. …

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